US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was joined Thursday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a visit of the Western Wall, the first time that Washington’s top diplomat has visited Jerusalem’s contested Old City accompanied by a senior Israeli official. The Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Biblical Temple compound, is beneath the Temple Mount and is the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray.
The visit could be seen as tacit American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested Jewish holy site and a shift in US policy. The two men were also accompanied by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
After signing a guestbook, the three men stepped up to the wall, placing their right hands on the ancient stones before bowing their heads in prayer.
Netanyahu and Pompeo placed notes into the wall, a longstanding tradition.
Pompeo and Netanyahu then toured the Wall and the adjacent tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. At a visitors center, the two men viewed a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.
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The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so visiting foreign dignitaries generally refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials.
Those who do want to tour the holy site usually do so in a private capacity, though in recent months an increasing number of foreign leaders have defied standard protocol and allowed Israeli diplomats to join them at the wall.
Pompeo said he thought it was important to visit the Wall with the Israeli leader as a show of support for Israel.
“I think it’s symbolic that a senior American official go there with a prime minister of Israel,” he said ahead of the visit. “It’s a place that’s important to many faiths and I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be very special.”
When US President Donald Trump visited the site in May of 2017, he did so without official Israeli accompaniment. Later that year, Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but stressed that he was not taking a position on the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”
In January of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence also briefly visited the wall. Like Trump, he was accompanied by employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation but without Israeli diplomatic officials.
Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration on December 6, 2018, Netanyahu joined Ambassador Friedman at a ceremony at the Western Wall.
At the time, Friedman noted with satisfaction that it may be the first time an Israeli prime minister had visited the site with any senior US official.
“I hope it’s the first of many more such occasions,” he said.
Just a few weeks later, on January 6, 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton visited the wall and the tunnels along with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer.
“This behavior will not change the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied territory and the capital of the state of Palestine,” Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, fumed at the time, arguing that such visits “undermine” international law and “lead to lawlessness.”
Pompeo is currently in Israel for talks about regional threats and efforts to export natural gas from the Mediterranean to Europe.
Hosting the secretary in his Jerusalem office Wednesday, Netanyahu hailed bilateral Israel-US ties. “It’s an unbreakable bond that’s based on shared values of liberty and democracy, and shared interest to fight the enemies of democracy, the enemies of our way of life, the terrorists that plague, that prowl our airspace and prowl our countries,” he said. He also praised Trump’s “historic” recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Later on Wednesday, Pompeo participated in an energy summit with Netanyahu, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to discuss the creation of the so-called East Med Pipeline.
AP contributed to this report